The Problem of What Others Think

More To That
4 min readJul 20, 2023

In a letter from Seneca to his friend Lucilius, he writes:

“It’s the height of madness to worry about being despised by the despicable.”

One of the great causes of suffering is this maddening worry about what others think of us. I can go into its causes by pointing to evolutionary psychology and our hunter-gatherer roots, but that’s neither novel nor interesting. Rather, I want to delve into the asymmetry between what we know about ourselves, and the uncertainty surrounding what others know of us. Because at its core, the worry about what others think is ultimately a function of uncertainty.

Whenever we interact with someone — whether in-person or online — a gap emerges between who you are, and who you are presenting. This is why the person you are with your boss isn’t the same as the person on the couch watching Netflix. Or why the person you are with your best friend isn’t the same as the person you are with an acquaintance. Each relationship contains a culture of behavior that you oscillate between, which means that you’re constantly presenting a different version of yourself across a wide range of interactions.

What this means is that it becomes increasingly difficult to know who you really are. If a certain version of you emerges with this individual, but in the very next moment you toggle another set of behaviors with another, then that means your very identity is switching upon context. And the more you have to maneuver between various projections of yourself, the more difficult it becomes to get a handle on what “yourself” means in the first place.

This is why you’re likely exhausted after large social gatherings, and yearn to turn on the TV and watch something brainless until you drift off to sleep. The fatigue is not caused by the rigor in which your mouth is moving to talk, but rather by the constant switching of identity that occurs in these situations. It’s no surprise that alcohol is a feature of these gatherings, given that it helps to merge your identity into one unit for the duration of the night. Confidence is nothing more than the assertion that you know yourself, and alcohol helps do this at the expense of clarity.

What we want to do is retain this internal confidence without the usage of any external substances. Because…